On Sunday night, the world will be tuning in to watch the Oscar telecast live from the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles (8:30 pm on ABC). It’s Hollywood’s most exciting night as all the stars come out to revel in the glitz and glamor that made them famous. We’ll be paying special attention here in Rhode Island too because Central Falls’ very own Viola Davis is up for an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her work in the film Fences. This is her third nomination and although she has yet to win, she is one of the favorites this year. (Vegas odds have her at 20:1.) We’ll all be rooting for her so she can give a shoutout to Rhody in her acceptance speech.
Viola won’t be the only Rhode Islander up for major awards at this year’s Oscars either. Director Damien Chazelle, who wrote and directed the Ryan Gosling-Emma Stone film La La Land, is up for both Best Director and Best Screenplay, not to mention that the film itself is a favorite for Best Picture. This is also his third nomination having been previously nominated for his screenplay for Whiplash in 2015. Chazelle was born in Providence. He may have left the state at a young age, but he’s still got that Rhode Island blood coursing through his veins (which they say smells like coffee milk).
Rhode Island at the Oscars
Rhode Island is no stranger to the Oscars, although we’ve come up a little short in the win department (at least in the major categories). Warwick’s James Woods has been nominated for two Oscars (once for Best Supporting Actor in Ghosts of Mississippi and once for Best Actor in Salvador). He too is Oscar-less which, considering his body of work, is kind of surprising. Versatile actor Richard Jenkins was nominated for Best Actor for his film The Visitor in 2007. Jenkins at one point served as Artistic Director for the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence where he cut his teeth in the business and earned his coveted SAG card (Screen Actors Guild). While in Providence he formed a bond with the Farrelly Brothers, who often set their funny-but-not-Oscar-nominated films in Rhode Island. Surprisingly, Jenkins has yet to win an Oscar too. In 1941, actress Ruth Hussey, born and bred in Providence and also an esteemed Brown University undergrad, was nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her work in the classic film Philadelphia Story. Alas, she lost out to someone from The Grapes of Wrath.
Perhaps the best Rhody connection at the Oscars has to go to Seth MacFarlane, a proud graduate of RISD and creator of Rhode Island’s most famous fictitious town, Quahog – home of the Griffins. Seth was nominated for Best Song for his 2012 movie Ted. (I bet you didn’t know that was an Oscar-nominated film). He lost, but as a small consolation, he did get to host the Oscars that year. That’s a big deal. This year’s host is Jimmy Kimmel who has no connection to the state. However the announcer for his nightly show is Dicky Barrett. Barrett was born in Providence, although he grew up mainly in Massachusetts. Barrett is more well-known for being the lead singer of the SKA band Mighty, Mighty Bosstones.
From the Campus to the Red Carpet
Colleges have long been a source of pride for our state and there are some alumni from local schools that have collected a few Oscars along the way. Filmmaker and Brown graduate Davis Guggenheim picked up a gold trophy in 2007 for his documentary An Inconvenient Truth, a film that warned us about global warming. Fellow Brown alumnus and composer Marco Beltrami has been nominated twice for Best Original Score for the films The Hurt Locker and 3:10 to Yuma. Unfortunately though, Marco was not a winner. RISD alumnus Gus Van Sant was nominated for two Oscars for best directing for his films Good Will Hunting and Milk. But he too came up short in the win column. Actor James Franco was once nominated for Best Actor for his film 127 Hours. Franco attended the graduate digital media program at RISD and spent some time in Providence while at school. Cinematographer Robert Richardson graduated from RISD in 1979. He would actually go on to win the Oscar for Best Cinematography three times for the films JFK, Hugo and The Aviator. (He was also nominated for the award six other times). That would make him the Rhode Island Oscar champion.
When it comes to Oscar nominations from our state, the writing category seems to bring us the most luck. Brian Helgeland was nominated twice for his screenplays for Mystic River and for L.A. Confidential and he won the award for the latter in 1998. Brian was born in Providence and grew up locally, even going to college at nearby UMASS Dartmouth. Similarly, writer David S. Ward was born in Providence and he too was nominated twice for writing. He won Best Screenplay for The Sting but was only nominated for Sleepless in Seattle, which he co-authored.
A Movie Mogul Comes to Town
Perhaps the biggest connection to the Oscars and Hollywood in general traces our history back to movie mogul Louis B. Mayer. When Mr. Mayer first immigrated to the United States, he spent his first years in Rhode Island. That gives him some Rhody heritage. Few people have had a bigger impact on Hollywood than Mayer who would go on to found the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio (MGM) which became the most prestigious film studio of its time. He was also one of the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. That just happens to be a group that hands out annual trophies for accomplishments in motion pictures called the Oscars. Mayer himself received an honorary Oscar for lifetime contributions in 1951.
Rhode Island itself has been the backdrop to many Oscar movies too. Newport was on grand display in the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby which won two Oscars for costumes and music. Stephen Spielberg filmed Amistad here as well, a movie that earned four Oscar nominations. The classic film High Society starring Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby was also filmed around Newport and other sites in Rhode Island. The film was honored with two nominations. Woody Allen filmed Irrational Man here two summers ago and while that film did not capture any prizes, it did star Emma Stone who is up for a Best Actress award at this year’s ceremony. Even the Arnold Schwarzenegger film True Lies, nominated for an Oscar for visual effects, was filmed in part in Rhode Island. Its director, James Cameron, would later go on to win three Oscars for Titanic. The list of great movies and films made in Rhode Island goes on, a tribute to the RI Film and TV Office.
Win one for the Ocean State
We may be the smallest state, but we know how to pack in the talent. If you watch the Oscars on Sunday, keep your eye out for all the Rhody connections mulling about in the star-studded crowd. We will be well-represented there, as we are every year. Keep your fingers crossed too because this could be the year of the big win for Viola Davis. She’ll undoubtedly mesmerize the crowd with a touching and meaningful acceptance speech that will be the highlight of the night. She’ll bring down the house. Meanwhile, 3000 miles across the country, her fellow Islanders will be standing tall and Rhody proud.